The 50 k freestyle in Oslo, Norway, on Saturday was Noah Hoffman’s last chance to ski his way into World Cup Finals. The American sat one point out of the top-50 in the overall rankings prior to the start and predicted he would need to somehow pick up a handful more at Holmenkollen to move safely inside the cutoff that separates who goes to Sweden and who doesn’t. He saw two ways to accomplish this goal that were potentially at odds with each other: go for points-laden intermediate preems or aim for a really good overall result.
Despite deviating from his original plan once the race got underway, Hoffman achieved that end on Saturday and successfully punched his ticket to Stockholm and Falun next week for the first time in his career. He scored 28 points en route to a 24th place overall finish — 21 of them from sprint preems and the rest from the end result — which was good enough for 47th in the most recent World Cup rankings. He led teammates Kris Freeman, Tad Elliott and nordic combined stringer Billy Demong in the results and hit a goal that was only an outside possibility at the beginning of the season.
Mission accomplished, right? Not so fast. After toying with the idea of going mainly for intermediate points, Hoffman’s most recent race plan dictated he stay relaxed for the early kilometers in order to give himself a shot at a top-ten, which would have been a “career step” that also satisfied his World Cup Finals goal.
“The plan we decided on was very optimistic,” Hoffman said. “I was going to ski for overall place and not concern myself with preems at all until after the third lap when I’m either in the race or I’m not. I thought that a top-ten at Holmenkollen was a possibility and I thought that at top-ten at Holmenkollen was also a career step for me.”
He ended up skiing with the leaders through the third preem at 19 k, dropping briefly outside the top-30 after a ski change on the third lap and ultimately climbing back to 24th with the help of a ride from Jiri Magal (CZE), who finished just ahead of him. This was not the plan, and consequently Hoffman had mixed feelings about his overall performance on Saturday evening. While “psyched” to have four more racing opportunities on the World Cup before heading home, he was not pleased to have so readily abandoned his strategy and fallen back into his tendency to go a little too fast at the start of a long race.
“I’m embarrassed to say that my plan was to chill out early in the race and I clearly didn’t do that,” he said. “I’ve been better at it in individual starts recently, to follow a plan and start at a conservative pace, but it was another day today when I didn’t do that in a mass start.”
There were many factors at play in Oslo that probably threw curve balls at everyone’s strategy, not only Hoffman’s. Six sprint preems in one race is a lot, and with the top men on the overall rankings fighting hard for points, the pace was varied as the pack alternately vied for position and then backed off.
“It’s a fairly hard course, and with mass start racing with the bonuses in there it definitely really affects the pace,” said U.S. Ski Team men’s coach Jason Cork. “It’s not an even pace, so it’s difficult. They’re always difficult 50 k’s but when you have the pace changing all the time it makes it hard as well.”
There were also five opportunities for athletes to change skis, but with a new twist: each trip to the exchange pit cost a few extra seconds. Nobody knew how the penalty would affect the dynamic of the race, which is exactly the tension FIS was going for with the new rule, but as a result athletes had to adjust their strategies on the fly as the race developed.
Hoffman decided to go for early preems when he found himself skiing easily with the leaders in the first few kilometers.
“The only reason I went for the preem on the first point was because it was super easy for me to end up in the top five,” he said. “Once I was there I was following guys and was like, ‘Well, I’m here. Might as well stay on them.’”
He picked up eight points in the preem at 3 k and another eight on the second one at 11 k, each time skiing in fourth place. The effort to stay there eventually caught up to him — “I was suffering near the end of the third lap,” Hoffman said.
His decision to change skis after lap three put him in the minority amongst those in his group, and with the exchange penalty he dropped out of the top-30 for a few kilometers. It was a gamble Hoffman thinks paid off in the end, as it allowed him to ski with a new group at a more reasonable pace, recover slightly and eventually move back up.
“I think had I not done that and stayed with slower skis and tried to ski with the group I was with after three laps, I might have blown up and faded a long ways down,” Hoffman reasoned. “So I think that was the right call, but it was a conscious decision to change skis. I knew it would take me out but I kind of felt like I was going in that direction anyways.”
Long story short, Hoffman accomplished his end goal on Saturday (World Cup Finals) but not the process goal (at top-ten), leaving him with mixed feelings about the result.
“I mean, I really didn’t want to go home tomorrow,” he said. But, he continued, “I really want to be good at this sport and I think that in order to do that I need to be patient, and I need to be able to have the confidence to relax early on in the race. The race is 50 k long and if you want to win the race it doesn’t do you any good to be up at the front in the first three laps and not in the front in the last three laps. So I guess I’m happy to be sticking around and happy to have four more race opportunities next week — I think those are valuable as well towards advancing my career — but I’m not very happy with myself for really not having any commitment to the plan.”
Team-wise, Cork thought the race went “pretty well” for the U.S. men. After Hoffman, Freeman finished 36th in 2:11:25.8. Elliott was next for the Americans in 53rd (2:20:57.5) and Demong finished 58th at 2:24:55.6. Freeman and Elliott both finished the regular season outside the top-50 and will not compete in World Cup Finals.
“Hoff was definitely trying to get enough points to make World Cup Finals and that happened, so that was good,” Cork said. “I think Tad and Bird maybe had not exactly as much as they would have liked to have, but they weren’t terrible races.”